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Dallin Watene-Zelezniak (Photo: Dave Rowland/Getty Images)
Dallin Watene-Zelezniak (Photo: Dave Rowland/Getty Images)

OPINIONSportsJuly 18, 2023

Mount Smart feels different all of a sudden

Dallin Watene-Zelezniak (Photo: Dave Rowland/Getty Images)
Dallin Watene-Zelezniak (Photo: Dave Rowland/Getty Images)

As the team solidifies its playoff credentials, has hope given way to expectation for the Warriors faithful?

This is an excerpt from The Bounce, a Substack newsletter by Dylan Cleaver.

The planning and execution couldn’t have gone much better.

The tickets were bought, the collaborators were ready and waiting to be picked up, the journey was stress-free and the car was parked free of charge 1.1km from the ground but crucially pointing in the right direction for a swift post-match getaway.

The walk was pleasantly communal, the queues at the gate were processed swiftly and the weather stayed perfect for footy. Seats were taken to the south, with a view straight down the pitch, the forecast stiff breeze skirting across the top of what used to be Mt Smart/Rarotonga before it was quarried out of existence and replaced by a charmless stadium. 

It was perfectly set up for a great afternoon of footy, then the whistle blew and… near silence.

Where were we? Auckland Central Library?

This was not expected. Not what I had promised my crew. Where was the noise, the fervour, the fidelity to the home team?

At the risk of delving into the psychology of crowds, a specialty I am not qualified in, my sense is that Warriors fans have made the collective switch from hope to expectation.

Hope can be cruel and it can be blind, but it stirs great passion.

Expectation is different. It weds you to outcomes, which can lead you to forget how much fun the process is.

Once it became obvious who the best team was yesterday, Go Media Stadium became all the fun of the fair again – but that airless first 15 minutes will stick with me, as will the magnificence of the final 65 minutes.

The Warriors dismantled Cronulla. After a quiet, conservative start that matched the crowd, they tore into their work, exposing the Sharks’ left edge defence mercilessly. The scoreline did not flatter them.

Shaun Johnson, in his 200th game for the club, will get the plaudits and deservedly so. He’s mixing his passing game beautifully and even though his kicking game was hit and miss the 40-20 in the first half was the perfect nudge for the perfect time.

You expect big games from Johnson, from the mountainous Addin Fonua-Blake, from Tohu Harris, Dallin Watene-Zelezniak and Wayde Egan. It’s the lesser expected contributors that must have the coaching staff giddy with excitement.

Rocco Berry is all of a sudden an NRL-class centre and his ceiling appears even higher. Luke Metcalf likewise at five-eighth. Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad might not possess the raw talent of Reece Walsh, but he’s better suited for this team than the Queensland superstar. Mitchell Barnett represents a good piece of business.

The top end of the table is extremely tight. The Panthers have the title-winning pedigree, but I’m not sure you can look at any one of those sides and say the Warriors match up poorly to them.

They’re in this.

“Regardless of who we play each week, we just want to win,” coach Andrew Webster told media after the game. “Where they’re ranked or where they come, it doesn’t matter. I just feel like we’ve beaten some really good sides that we haven’t been given enough credit for. Everyone’s so obsessed with where everyone sits on the ladder, as opposed to where they’re going to be at the end or where they’ve been before.”

I’ve been to the Warriors a lot over the years. This is by far the best home team I have witnessed  – I was overseas in 2002 and on RWC duty in 2011 – in the flesh. 

Perhaps it is no surprise, then, that Mt Smart just feels different. It feels expectant.

Keep going!